Unable to dispel health rumors, Bush takes them on Clinton's youthful image worries president's camp

August 25, 1992|By Karen Hosler | Karen Hosler,Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- President Bush is taking the calculated risk of denying unsubstantiated rumors that his health is failing after the White House determined it wasn't able to make them go away.

Both the president and his wife, Barbara, raised the issue directly at the Republican National Convention in Houston, and Mr. Bush mentioned it again during a three-day campaign swing over the weekend.

There is no apparent reason to doubt the contention of his doctor that Mr. Bush is in "excellent health."

But two bouts with illness during his first term, the inevitable signs of aging and fatigue that come with the job and a continuing cycle of self-feeding rumors have created a political problem for Mr. Bush that might not have mattered if his opponent weren't 23 years younger.

The Bush campaign is determined to try to squelch any suspicions that play into the Democrats' call for a new generation of presumably more energetic leadership.

The first attempt to quash the health rumors came several weeks before the convention, when Mr. Bush raised the matter himself during a White House meeting with reporters.

Then, Mr. Bush and his wife made a point of testifying to Mr. Bush's physical soundness in their convention speeches. The president even added a joke about how he looks better in his jogging shorts than his Democratic rival, Bill Clinton.

And though the convention is history, Mr. Bush is still pumping himself up like Arnold Schwarzenegger.

"Let me put something in perspective," he told several thousand wilting supporters at a hot, humid waterfront rally in Gulfport, Miss., Friday. "You've been reading some of the crazy reports about my health. Well, let me say I am blessed with good health, blessed with good health. . . ."

"And if those overnight polls are any barometer," he added, "the American people agree with me that I do look better in my jogging shorts . . . than Bill Clinton."

By Saturday night in Dallas, the 68-year-old Mr. Bush was telling age jokes on himself.

He noted before a gathering of evangelical Christians that the Book of Proverbs says "grandchildren are the crown of the aged."

"I wouldn't put myself quite up with the aged yet -- some will, but I don't put myself there," he said.

At other points during his weekend campaign swing, the president seemed to make a point of looking exuberant.

He bounded up and down the stairs to Air Force One, flung his tie to the crowd in Woodstock, Ga., and refused an umbrella in the pouring rain. He went jogging in the Ozarks along the hilly roads of Branson, Mo., and told Lillie Mae Brownlee, of Woodstock, that the enthusiastic reaction he encountered was "good for my heart."

He feels it's necessary to make these testimonials to his health, according to the presidential spokesman, Marlin Fitzwater, "because people keep asking about it."

Robert M. Teeter, Mr. Bush's campaign manager, claimed the questions sprang from rumors planted by the Clinton campaign.

"You know, and I know, those other guys have been putting it out for months," he told reporters aboard Air Force One Saturday.

The Bush campaign has never offered any proof of Democratic dirty tricks on the health issue. But White House strategists know well how potentially explosive that issue can be.

In 1988, then-President Ronald Reagan raised questions about the mental health of Michael S. Dukakis in a White House reference to unsubstantiated reports that the Democratic nominee had once sought psychological counseling.

The Bush rumors seem to have taken on a life of their own, however, for no apparent reason.

Mr. Bush does looks older than he did four years ago, but better than most men his age. His appearance is less changed than that of Jimmy Carter, who took office in 1976 at a younger age -- 56 -- than Mr. Bush did but aged dramatically during his term as president.

The president seems fully recovered from his bout with Graves disease last year, which put him in the hospital for a couple of days after his heart started beating erratically while he was jogging.

The source of his problem turned out to be an overactive thyroid gland that was destroyed with radioactive treatments. He now takes daily medication to perform the thyroid's job of regulating his hormone level.

But public impressions of Mr. Bush as a man of unusually robust health was probably lost for good when he collapsed in Tokyo last January at a state dinner in his honor, which he attended despite a raging case of the flu.

Since then, the president has of ten seemed to his friends to be over-tired. Some blame his doctor, Burton J. Lee, for failing to administer the hormone medication properly. Others questioned Dr. Lee's wisdom in prescribing for the president a controversial sleeping potion, Halcion, which some claim causes short-term memory loss.

Mr. Teeter said that after the initial outing last weekend it wouldn't be necessary for Mr. Bush to keep repeating how good he feels because his appearance would speak for itself.

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